DATE December 5, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Director Ang Lee discusses making his latest film,
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a new martial arts film made by a
director whose previous films have played art houses. The director is Ang
Lee, who also made "Eat Drink Man Woman," "Sense and Sensibility" and "The
Ice Storm." "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is set in ancient China and
blends Buddhist principles and martial arts. The fights defy the laws of
gravity as the warriors climb walls, fly and face-off on treetop branches.
The New York Times described "Crouching Tiger" as taking the genre to a
new level. Entertainment Weekly calls it one of the best movies of the
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" tells the story of an unruly, aristocratic
teen-age girl who's secretly a martial arts prodigy. She flees her arranged
marriage to live a warrior's life, taking with her a stolen weapon; a
beautiful jade sword. Two highly skilled warriors--played by Chow Yun-Fat
Michelle Yeoh--try to recover the sword and save the girl. A little later,
we'll speak with Michelle Yeoh, who has starred in many martial arts films.
But first, we talk with the filmmaker Ang Lee.
Much of the story in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" revolves around women,
and some of the most spectacular fights in the movie are involving women.
Why did you make women the center of this story and of the fighting?
Mr. ANG LEE (Director, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"): Well, I loved to
do them, I guess. Well, it was in the book. I guess--maybe I'm not a macho
guy, myself. Over the years I found doing especially strong women that
speak really for me. I found that I really enjoy doing them. They are very
effective to me, and I get attracted to those characters both in real life
in drama. So any time I see that kind of character that--it attracts me
GROSS: The fight choreographer that you use in "Crouching Tiger" is Yuen
Woo-Ping, who has done a lot of martial arts film and he also did the
choreography for "The Matrix."
Mr. LEE: Uh-huh.
GROSS: Were there things that you asked him to do that he said to you,
`Sorry, that's not possible'?
Mr. LEE: A lot of soft stuff, like soft weapons, things that tie with a
or weapons that would bend to hit around people. That kind of weapon he
doesn't like because it's very time consuming. With--at the same time with
the hard weapons and sticks like that, you can do so much more and there's a
lot more collisions 'cause usually collisions generate a lot of excitement.
But I want to do the Wu Don style, sort of tai chi style. That was just
too soft for him. So sometimes he said that doesn't look good.
GROSS: Well, what is Wu Don style?
Mr. LEE: It used to be--at least in movies, the shouting styles like hard
kind of style that's similar to karate and tae kwon do. It's--a lot of
I have seen that. The Wu Don style is more soft and restrained kind of
style. It's hard to see and more into that, and that doesn't always look
on film. So sometimes he will reject that.
I think a lot of stuff I wanted to do he would do it gradually. Like, too
many wire works that's time consuming. He likes to fight on the ground.
GROSS: Well, I'm going to stop you there.
Mr. LEE: Yeah.
GROSS: You say he likes to fight on the ground. You have scenes where
characters basically fly from the ground onto a rooftop or, like, walk up a
wall in the middle of fight or fight on the tops of trees.
Mr. LEE: Yes.
GROSS: I guess the choreographer--that would come under the category of
the choreographer didn't like to do.
Mr. LEE: No, he did not. He's my hero since I was a film student. He made
the movie that made Jackie Chan. He made the movie that made Jet Li. He's
Mr. LEE: So to me, he's just one of my great heroes. But he's not known
good wire work. He didn't like it. He like ground fight. He's--with
and classic Chinese fighting stance.
Mr. LEE: And he's also coming from Peking Opera background, so he like
choreography. But when it's up air--people are up in the air, it's physics.
It's something else.
GROSS: So when they're up in the air, you're working with wires that
them and can pull them up...
Mr. LEE: Right.
GROSS: ...kind of like when Peter Pan flies across the theater.
Mr. LEE: Right. With cranes or poles or whatever you can hook the wires
GROSS: Why did you want some of the fights to be in the air or to be on the
top of trees?
Mr. LEE: It's airborne. It's metaphorically gravity defying. In the
there's a lot of social restraints and the Peking, repressed, classic
society with women's story. I just think on the other hand when they get to
fight, the exhilarating visual effects of flying the air, which is a great
tradition from the novels and the movie genre. I just feel like using them
metaphorically, as cinematically a power. I think it's very effective to
I just like to do it on the film.
GROSS: Could you describe what was happening on the ground when two of your
characters are having a fight on the treetops?
Mr. LEE: On the ground? Oh, what happened on the ground?
GROSS: Yeah. Who--what--what...
Mr. LEE: Some 20, 30 people pulling them from each and every direction,
hours to set up. We--and the Bamboo Forest was in the southern part of
China. Bamboo Forest is about the size of, maybe, Connecticut. And they're
always in the valleys, the bamboo groves. So it's hard to find a row--which
we did find one to park those five, six big construction cranes. So the
were set up--cables and wires were set up there according to what I see
happen on the bamboo, then they set it up--it takes hours and hours--then
trying out. Basically, a whole bunch of people pulling different cables and
wires that are attached to the harness that hanged the actors. And they
pull it in different directions and try to manipulate what might happen
and--according to the fighting and ...(unintelligible) suspense.
Mr. LEE: It's very light, bouncy kind of effort, but by a lot of people.
GROSS: So it takes a lot of machinery and a lot of people...
Mr. LEE: Man power.
GROSS: ...and a lot of wires to make it seem that the two actors are
the laws of gravity.
Mr. LEE: It's a sheer craftsmanship developed in Hong Kong over the years.
GROSS: Yeah. Uh-huh.
Mr. LEE: There's a tacit understanding and coordination between the actors
and the pullers, because they--only the wire itself is much heavier than the
actors. So they could only act according to the pulling strength they were
GROSS: And then when the scene is completed you, like, digitally erase the
wire from the screen image?
Mr. LEE: Yes. Yeah, which is a pain in the neck because there's a lot of
foregrounds with the bamboo leaves. Anything soft is difficult to do.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Right.
Mr. LEE: And the cross, too. He raised the wires from the cross. That's
flapping. That's difficult.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ang Lee and his new movie is
called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
In an interview with Time magazine, you said that you worked non-stop on
movie for eight months and that you were miserable. You said, `Near the
I could hardly breathe. I thought I was about to have a stroke. I'm
now trying to get fit again. But since I'm middle-aged, I'll probably never
come back to normal.' Now this was in December of 1999.
Mr. LEE: This is all true, yeah.
GROSS: How do you feel now?
Mr. LEE: I'm still adjusting, going back to my health. Actually, the worst
time's when I came back during the editing. That was the worst time, when I
totally feel like the '70s according to--or the early '70s. That was a
backlash to the '60s. That's how I felt when it finally hits home. Some
in my body was malfunctioning. I was really depressed. But I was under a
lot of pressure to get the full movie out for the Cannes Film Festival. And
there's so many cutting to do; music and especially special effects, like
shots of them. They're all jammed into that four or five months. So I was
terrible shape. And I'm pretty much getting back except there is still a
little tendinitis on my feet.
GROSS: Why tendinitis?
Mr. LEE: I don't know. It's kind of a bodily malfunction.
GROSS: Did that connect to making the movie?
Mr. LEE: Yes, it's funny. Tendinitis--I went to the doctor when I came
back. The first thing--he said, `Are you under long time of stress?' I
`What's that'--he said, `Oh, it has everything to do with stress.' And
probably from the location scouting, up and down the mountain too many times
and standing 16, 20 hours constantly. I think that all adds up. Plus, I'm
GROSS: Well, what's it's like to say to yourself, `I love making movies.
This is my dream come true in making this movie,' and `I'm miserable. I
feel good. I'm exhausted'? It's quite a contradiction, you know, that
Mr. LEE: But it's exhilaration. Why people do free drop from the airplane,
you know--know, parachutes and climbing Himalayas or diving? I think it's
romantic, like romance. It has a sort of destructive nature because you go
all the way, but it's exhilarating. It's just that's where you go and
Your body takes certain tolls, but hey, you know, it's a part of human
GROSS: Is the worst part when it's over and the adrenaline is gone and
still left with the tendinitis and all the other problems?
Mr. LEE: And you pay for it.
Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. LEE: Well, thank you.
GROSS: Ang Lee directed the new film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." It
opens nationally later this month.
Coming up, we meet one of the film's stars, Michelle Yeoh, the star of many
martial arts films. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actress Michelle Yeoh discusses her career and her new
film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Michelle Yeoh is one of the stars of the new film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon." She starred in many Asian martial arts films. She co-starred with
Jackie Chan in "Supercop," and was the heroine of the James Bond movie
"Tomorrow Never Dies." She grew up in Malaysia.
In her fight sequences in "Crouching Tiger," she defies gravity and flies.
director Ang Lee described, this required suspending her by wires. I asked
her what it's like to work with wires.
Ms. MICHELLE YEOW ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"): Hard, painful.
Because basically what happens is you're in this corset. If you have a
24-inch waist, by the time you remove the corset, it would be down to 18
Ms. YEOH: Basically, you can't breathe, there is limited mobility and you
are not in total control. You have to work very hard to keep your back
upright and your whole body looking very graceful. At the same time, there
are four or five guys on the other end of the wire who's pulling you up and
down. So you work with very, very subtle feelings of movement. When they
pull, you have to know when to go with them, when you have to work against
wire and with the wires. So by the end of, like, a 15-minute session, you
really need to come down because your legs get numb, you know, your ribs are
hurting and it's very hard work.
GROSS: You say you have to work hard to keep your back upright, to keep
Ms. YEOH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You have beautiful posture, and I'm sure that has something to do
studying ballet when you were young.
Ms. YEOH: Oh, absolutely. I totally give credit to that because it's given
me that very graceful, very expansive kind of movement which I have been
to incorporate it into my martial arts, whereby when you watch us fight,
more balletic and lyrical rather than being very short and aggressive. It's
explosive, but at the same time, that grace is very necessary. I think that
is the major difference when you watch a woman fight and when you watch a
GROSS: What, that sense of grace?
Ms. YEOH: Yes.
GROSS: You studied ballet in England at the Royal Academy of Dance.
Ms. YEOH: That's right. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But you have...
Ms. YEOH: I studied ballet since I was, like, four years old. I think I
always wanted to be a ballerina. And when I went on to England--in fact,
was my dream to have my own ballet school back in Malaysia. And I did a
degree in dance and minored in drama, as well. But I didn't go on to that,
went on into acting instead.
GROSS: Now I think you had an injury that made it necessary for you to give
Ms. YEOH: That's right. I had a back injury while I was doing ballet. And
that--instead of being able to pursue a professional side of ballet, I went
back to college, university, and that's when I went into choreography and
contemporary and other things, instead.
GROSS: How is it possible to do all the fighting in martial arts films with
whatever injury you sustained yet not be able to do ballet?
Ms. YEOH: I don't know, actually. That's a very good question. No, when I
was doing ballet, we used to dance from, like, 9:00--you know, it was a
full-time course. So--and a lot of ballerinas you will find that, you know,
they put their body through absolute hell. I figure with an action movie,
only do in short spurts of time, like, you know, for a couple of weeks and
then you have a break. So you're not intensively banging the body in that
I think my specialist, if he ever saw any of the films that I did, would be
very shocked because he told me, you know, `You can't do any of this
things that's going to hurt your back.' And if he saw me rolling off cars,
you know, jumping off high buildings and kicking around like that, I think
would be very, very taken aback.
GROSS: Good point. Why don't you describe what was one of your most risky
and strenuous stunts?
Ms. YEOH: That would definitely be in "Supercop," a movie that I did with
Jackie Chan. That's the big difference when you do a contemporary movie
"Supercop" and then "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In a contemporary
you not only do arm-to-arm combat, but also stunts are much more important
that sense. And I think the craziest one I ever did was to take a bike
GROSS: A motorcycle.
Ms. YEOH: A motorcycle, and jump on to a moving train. And the worst is
learned to ride a bike--motorbike probably about three weeks prior to that.
Today, if you ask me to ride a motorbike, I can go but I don't know how to
stop. I always jump off the bike.
GROSS: Now let me say--what you were doing in this stunt, you were driving,
you know, from the ground on this motorcycle and...
Ms. YEOH: Yes, up a ramp.
GROSS: Up a ramp, and onto the roof of a moving train.
Ms. YEOH: That's right, yes.
GROSS: And the outtakes of this are at the end of "Supercop," at least they
are on the video version...
Ms. YEOH: Yes.
GROSS: ...and we see that the first time you tried it, you fell off the
Ms. YEOH: And went bouncing.
GROSS: What did you bounce onto? Not the concrete, I hope.
Ms. YEOH: Oh, no, no, no. If it was the concrete, I wouldn't be sitting
GROSS: That's what I thought.
Ms. YEOH: No, we have--what happens is on the other side of the train, we
line it with cardboard boxes. So if you--with--when we used to do--I think
that time I was really very blessed in the sense that I was surrounded by
lucky stars. Looking back at some of the stunts, especially in that film, I
could have been so seriously hurt. When I bounced onto those cardboard
I could have bounced five feet further away and I would have missed the
cardboard boxes and landed on the tracks on the other side. So, you know,
when I was dubbing that film, that was when I sort of went, `What was I
thinking at that time?'
GROSS: And you've had your share of injuries. For instance, you had a
injury in one of your martial arts films. What happened?
Ms. YEOH: That's right. This was in the movie called "The Story of a Stunt
Woman(ph)." When we started off to do this film--it's directed by Ann Hui.
It was my--it's my tribute to the stunt people that I've worked with
you know, they really are the unsung heroes. So we wanted to show a
behind-the-scenes. And I was playing a stunt woman in this film. And I was
doing one of these stunts where I was pushed off a highway bridge and was
supposed to land on to a moving truck. We had done the wide shot, you know,
where I jumped off at least about 60 feet onto the truck. And then we were
doing up a close--a medium shot where there was only, like, an 18-foot drop.
But the push threw me off my balance and instead of reacting to the push, I
was thinking of the more dramatic side, so--and the fall very fast and
furious. So I landed on my head. And first I heard my neck just go, crrrk,
and then before I could do anything, my legs were coming from behind and I
folded backwards. And I heard was, like, two planks of wood going (sound of
hand clap) like that.
I think at that moment, Ann was in absolute shock. She couldn't move for
few minutes while they were trying to pick me up and send me to the
But at that time, I think quite a few people were very concerned that I
might--could have broken my neck or my back.
GROSS: What did you break?
Ms. YEOH: I just fractured some ribs. I didn't break anything. I think
this was years of training as a ballerina and a sports person, so I was very
flexible. Thank God for that.
GROSS: Why do your own stunts? You know, in most American movies the
have stunt people to be their surrogate in scenes like the ones you've
Ms. YEOH: When I first went into action films--actually, it was my second
movie that we did that. The reason being is I--the decision was to do or
to do, because in Hong Kong, you have people, like, you know, Sammo Hung,
Jackie Chan, Jet Li. And they were so established because they did their
stunts. The Asian audiences are spoiled in that sense that they know and
will only regard you as doing your job properly if you do your own stunts.
And I think I had a bigger challenge to prove at that time, because, you
in the '80s when I first went into action films, there had not been a female
action star, so to speak, so how do--we had to convince the audience, first
all, that a woman was capable of doing something like that. And the only
you could convince them was to show them, you know, without any doubling.
so that was the initial reason that I did that.
And then afterwards--it's the sense of pride, as well. It's a huge physical
challenge and mental challenge to be able to be so focused and to execute
of these incredible, you know, stunts that the stunt coordinator has thought
of. And after that, it's immensely rewarding when you see the effects, the
finished cut. It's quite amazing 'cause nobody can take it away from you
you know that you've done it for yourself.
GROSS: Michelle Yeoh stars in the new film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden
It opens nationally later this month. She'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, how to absorb the impact of a blow. We continue our conversation
with martial arts film star Michelle Yeoh. She's starring in the new film
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." She worked opposite Jackie Chan in
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michelle Yeoh. She's
starred in many Asian martial arts films. She co-starred with Jackie Chan
"Supercop" and was the heroine of the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never
Her new film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is a martial arts film with
art house sensibility. It's directed by Ang Lee, who also made "Eat Drink
Woman," "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm."
Let's get back to ballet and martial arts. You studied ballet, then got
martial arts movies. We think of ballerinas as very strong but at the same
time very dainty and vulnerable, almost fragile-looking. And martial arts
anything but, right?
Ms. YEOH: ...(Unintelligible). Yes.
GROSS: So are there expectations in ballet that are very different from
martial arts? For instance, you have to use your body in very different
when you're fighting than when you're dancing.
Ms. YEOH: I think what--ballerinas are amazing, I would say, athletes in
way, because they make what they do so simple, so easy. Running around on
your tiptoes like that is sheer pain, to be honest. You know, doing those
split jumps and spinning in the air is just dedication and years of
to be honest. But ballet gives people that very sort of flowing, very
non-agressive. They are dynamic, but they're non-aggressive kind of a, you
know, look. Whereas with martial arts, you're talking martial arts when you
do--when you perform that, especially in a film, it's about aggression. It
So how do we switch from one movement into the other one? Having studied
ballet, what it really has taught me is a sense of coordination, picking up
movements very quickly and also being in control, knowing, you know, where
your arms, your legs, you know, where is going what, and being very
coordinated in that way. And flexible. And also it's given me an immense
sense of grace in my movements whereby, you know, my legs would go in a huge
arc and has got that `ssshhh' flow to it, and it's added to my martial arts
that way. Because movements are much bigger for the screen than it is when
you're actually practicing martial arts for real life.
But when I started to do my first action film, I had to spend a lot of time
learning how to direct the energy. With balletic movements, even though
are graceful, the speed of going out and coming in is very sharp and very
precise. And it's very similar to what it is in martial arts, as well,
except, you know, the expression is much more aggressive or the movements
a much more movement that comes from the waist that translates to the
shoulders, then finally to the fist.
But then I was very lucky, because when I first started out doing martial
arts, I had the cooperation of the stunt people in Hong Kong. I guess when
they first started out they were very curious to see, you know, if this
she doesn't seem to realize what she's letting herself in for. And then
they found out that I could pick up movements that they were throwing at me,
then they got more interested into teaching me how to focus and how to
the punch that looks--there is full contact, I must tell you, when we fight
GROSS: No, really? There is?
Ms. YEOH: Oh, yes. There is no such thing...
GROSS: How? I mean, how full? You'd be breaking each other's noses and
every day if there was complete contact.
Ms. YEOH: No, when it comes to the faces, obviously--yes, you--even
sometimes when we kick the stunt double in the jaw, there is full contact.
What we can do is instead of wearing leather shoes, which is too hard, they
would maybe sort of pad the top of the foot. Or, you know, use rubber shoes
so that it's softer, but when I smack them across the face or the neck,
is not a touch (demonstrates touch), there is an actual (demonstrates punch)
impact on it. And I have knocked out my stunt boys doing that before. So
when we are fighting with each other, you know, when we're hitting each
on the arms or we're kicking each other on the--around the body, there is
impact. But the--when you fight with someone who is very experienced, they
know on impact to absorb and know how to react to it.
GROSS: So how do you absorb impact?
Ms. YEOH: So they're not...
GROSS: Because I'm sure you're hit, too, right?
Ms. YEOH: You learn--this comes with experience, honestly. The first few
times when I did it, it was just sheer taking the punches, and then after
you learn that it's timing as well and this is something that, you know,
you--it doesn't come overnight. If you're lucky and you're working with
someone that's--whose rhythm is in sync with you, then it's much easier. If
not, then, you know, both of you are just going `kung, kung, kung,' you
It just--belting at each other the whole time. When you can--upon just--the
impact of it, and you move together with that punch or that kick, then you
absorb and take away, you know, the direct hit. But then when there is no
hit, you will--you as an audience will be able to see it very, very clearly.
GROSS: This leads me to facial expressions. Now ballet dancers, no matter
what kind of pain they might be feeling on stage, have to have this kind of
beautiful, kind of serene expression on their faces much of the time. Not
always. It depends on the role, but much of the time. What about the
expression you're going for in a martial arts fight on screen?
Ms. YEOH: The most important thing are your eyes. You know? When you
are--it has to have that look. It doesn't mean that you have to grimace and
think, you know, `When I grimace, I'm going to look fierce.' It's that
intense focus on knowing what you are doing. In some of my earlier films,
the--my directors used to love for me to go (growls), you know, sort of
snarl just to project that I'm coming over to punch your lights out.
here in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," it was much more difficult to keep
that almost Zenlike look on your face and still having that very piercing,
know, `I know where I'm going, I know how I'm going to outwit you in this
fight,' 'cause, you know, you're remembering all of these very complicated
movements, and, at the same time, your eyes have to tell the audience what
are thinking. It is very hard. And then the rest of it is really your body
language. It's how you throw that punch. And a lot of the times, I think,
especially for girls, when we throw a punch it doesn't come from the waist,
comes from the hand.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Ms. YEOH: So this is something--Right? Do you get--I'm sure you know what
I'm talking about. And when--that in a film looks wimpy. So it's learning
all these movements that makes the whole package, it's your body language,
it's the way you hold your body, it's your face, it's your eyes, it's every
single thing that comes together and makes you convincing.
GROSS: Did you study martial arts in addition to understanding choreography
Ms. YEOH: When I started doing action films, that was when I went into
learning how to do martial arts. Prior to that, because, you know, as a
coming from a Chinese-Malaysian family, the girls do ballet and piano and
boys do the martial arts. So I never had any training in martial arts
visual. And then afterwards when I started my first film in Hong Kong, it
an action comedy movie but I was still--I was playing the more stereotypical
damsel in distress, and it was a movie with Sammo Hung and I looked at
this--you know, he's a big guy, but the movements that he was doing were
choreographed and it was like a beautiful dance piece in that way. And I
thought to myself `I think it's possible for me to translate one kind of
movement into another.' So when I did my second movie, which was called
Madam!" where I played a Hong Kong police officer, that was when I started
to learn martial arts.
GROSS: Which form did you study?
Ms. YEOH: At that time, you know, that was one thing that we were looking
and we thought instead of going for one particular style, which you don't
in a movie, except if it was a period piece where you would say, `OK, in
film it's wing chung,' or `this movie is about shallyn(ph),' or `this movie
more based on tai chi.' With contemporary movie, it's about street
It's about agility. It's--especially with Hong Kong action films, it's more
about, you know--it's almost acrobatic in that sense. So I learned directly
from the stunt coordinators.
I learned all the basic moves, which were the most important thing. Because
when you walk onto a set, you don't know what other movements that you're
going to be doing for that fight sequence until 10, 15 minutes prior to it
being shot. So, you know, you don't rehearse for two weeks and learn all
movements and then go and, you know, play it out on the set. They throw it
you, if you're lucky 15, 20 minutes before they call you to shoot that
So what you do is if you're--you have to be cardiovascularly very fit. And
then when you are armed with the basic fundamentals of martial arts, knowing
all the kicks, knowing all the different punches, you know, your jumping
kicks, your side kicks, and the most important thing, the different poses
posture and the movement, then you are pretty well sort of based to go into
action film in that way.
GROSS: My guest is Michelle Yeoh. She's starring in the new film
Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which opens later this month. We'll talk more after
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Yeoh and she stars
the new movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which is a kind of art film
version of a martial arts movie. Michelle Yeoh has starred in a lot of
martial arts movies. She starred with Jackie Chan in "Supercop" and she
starred in the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies."
What were some of the expectations your parents had of you as a daughter?
What did they expect you to do when you grew up?
Ms. YEOH: I think the very--especially with Chinese mothers, if their
daughters are not married by the time they're 24, they're worried that, you
know, she's going to be a spinster. And at that time, they always thought
that I would finish--graduate from my ballet school and then I would go back
to Malaysia and start my own school in Malaysia, you know, teaching children
ballet, which was something that I had always wanted to do. But
for me, even though they were very traditional, my father had always
in the fact that, you know, you are an independent person and you have to
the choices because at the end of the day you are the one who has to live
them. And I don't want you, you know, after 10 years or five years to turn
around and say, `Look, Dad, you know, this is your fault because you didn't
let me do this.' So when I turned around to them and said, `I have been
offered a film contract out in Hong Kong,' their first reaction was like
Hong Kong is not exactly round the corner from Ipoh, but if this is what you
want to pursue'--they had the confidence that, you know, I was old enough
wise enough to look after myself so they gave me their blessings. But as a
traditional parent, obviously, their aim, I think, and goal, is to see me
happy, settle down with family and kids and the normal life.
GROSS: Well, you have not had the normal life, I think, by anybody's
Ms. YEOH: By any standards. I think I'm a great failure in that.
GROSS: Now you were crowned Miss Malaysia in 1983.
Ms. YEOH: That's right.
GROSS: What did you have to do for the title? Was there, like, a talent
competition and a bathing suit competition, like in Miss America pageants?
Ms. YEOH: Oh, no, it's rather different, because Malaysia is a Muslim
country. So, you know, bathing suits and all that are all kept indoors, in
room. And also the other thing that's unlike, for example, America or in
Kong, where beauty pageants have a link with TV or films, in Malaysia it
was--really, you had to be the ambassadors of your country, whereby I went
to London for the Miss World and, you know, learned a lot about charity work
and all that. And then after that was a sort of a tourist ambassador when I
went to Australia as well. I think the best experience I had from that was
really learning about my country. Because at the age of about 15 I went
to England to study, so those years of my life were spent mainly in England
and I didn't know that much about my own country. So prior to being Miss
Malaysia, and being Miss Malaysia at that time, I spent a lot of time, you
know, knowing about my own country, my cultures, different cultures, and
traveling within our place.
GROSS: Michelle Yeoh is my guest. She stars in Ang Lee's new movie,
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which is a kind of art film version of a
martial arts movie. In your new movie, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,"
choreographer is you and Woo-ping, who is one of the famous Asian martial
films choreographers. Would you take one of those scenes where, you know,
say, like, three people are coming at you at the same time and you disable
them with a couple of kicks and jumps. How are you going to rehearse that
scene? Are you going to do it over and over again till everybody knows what
Ms. YEOH: Yes.
GROSS: And the first times, do you do it without really connecting, just to
make sure you've got, more or less...
Ms. YEOH: You're good. Have you done this before?
GROSS: ...everybody in place?
Ms. YEOH: You've got the right drift.
Ms. YEOH: That is what happens. First of all, the stunt coordinators, you
know, Yuen Woo-ping and his right hand men, would work out and see what
other movements they think would look good for the camera or that situation.
And then afterwards, what happens is the two leads will do it with each a
stunt coordinator so that, you know, it's not the two leads having
it out together. Because, you know, they--the stunt coordinators know
exactly what they're doing. So then these two separate teams will come
together, and then when I'm doing it with my co-lead, the one I'm fighting
with, first of all, we do it slowly. We run through the movements that we
know, until we know exactly what we're doing, without contact, with gentle
contact, you know, just so we touch, we know. OK, duck, go under, kick,
smack, bang, react. So this is what we do.
So in your mind, that's practice, that's rehearsing. And then when we
that's when we have to go into it. So prior to shooting, it's just going
through the movements because you do not want to expend your energy as well.
Remember when you're doing a shoot there, for us, the normal shooting hours
are 12 to 15 hours and if you're doing an action sequence you would be
fighting the entire day. And every shot needs 110 percent from you. So
you're rehearsing, you try as best not to dispense that full energy. You do
it halfway as you get more, sort of, used to the movements. And then
there is speed. You don't do it `pop, pop, pop,' you know? You have to go
`tung, tadatung, tung, tung, tung, tung.' So it's that rhythm that happens
during the shoot.
GROSS: You know, sometimes, even a good actor will forget a line and need
be prompted. If you forget a move, you're really sunk.
Ms. YEOH: It is less dangerous when you're not using weapons because...
Ms. YEOH: ...I tell you, when you're fighting arm-to-arm combat, the
mistake someone can do is like if you're supposed to be punching them across
the face left to right, and they suddenly blank out and they react right to
left, that's when accidents happen. The biggest problem is when you use
weapons because when you hit at someone, it was--like, for example, in this
movie, it was very intimidating for the new girl because this was her first
action film. And when I attack her, I don't have a smile on my face going
`OK, watch out left, watch out right.' I'm really going with a very intense
and very fast movements. And at the beginning, of course, I, too, am
that `What if I make a mistake and I hit her on the wrong side?' Or `She
makes a mistake and she puts her head in the wrong way?'
Because at the end of these spears that we use, even though they're not
sharpened, you know, to be cutting, it's still metal and if I was to jab in
there, she would be spewing blood all over the place. So there is that risk
factor. That's why if you are fit and you are trained, your reaction, your
reflexes are a lot faster. And also when we fight, we don't react before
punch is thrown. We only react after the punch is thrown. So you literally
watch where the punch is going. So in case that person goes the wrong way,
you're not going to be the idiot that goes with it. So it's just practice
being very, very aware of yourself and who you are fighting with.
GROSS: My guest is Michelle Yeoh. She's starring in the new film
Tiger, Hidden Dragon." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Michelle Yeoh. She's starring in the new film
Tiger, Hidden Dragon." It's a martial arts film with an art house
sensibility. She's starred in many Asian martial arts films.
In your new movie, "Crouching Tiger," you tore a knee ligament during, I
think, the early phase of the shooting.
Ms. YEOH: Yes.
GROSS: And you had some surgery, recovered for about three weeks and then
were back in the film again. How did you manage to do that?
Ms. YEOH: I think it was sheer discipline, gritting my teeth. I'd waited a
year and a half to do "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," when Ang Lee first
approached me after I'd just finished "Tomorrow Never Dies," and he said to
me, `I want to do "Sense and Sensibility" with martial arts. And I--at that
moment said, `Yes, fine.' And I'm a great admirer of his work and I knew
working with Ang I would be taken to another level. I would learn very much
from him about acting, about our film business.
So when that accident happened, it was in the first action sequence,
the last night of that big fight scene that we have. Fortunately, it was
last night. And fortunately also in this move right from the word go, I had
only two fight sequences, one at the beginning and one at the end. So there
was a big change around in the scheduling where they had to allocate that
final sequence until the last 10 days. I was very, very fortunate to have
care and attention of Dr. Andy Cosgarea from Johns Hopkins and also the
physiotherapist, Ian Dow(ph), over in Baltimore, because without their
after, I would not have been able to get back to the set.
When we first discovered that, yes, there was--because I was in self-denial
when I had the fall and I thought I'd just sprained my knee, you know.
three days I will be fine. I'll be jumping, I'll be running. But, you
because when I turn right, my leg would go left, that something was not
So I was there with Dr. Cosgarea. He did the MRI. I think he could see in
face, you know, that I wanted him to say, `No, you're fine. Don't worry.
back on the set.' He had to give me the bad news. And following I had to
give the bad news to Ang. And from day one, Ang had always said to me, `You
are my warrior in this movie.' And I knew how devastated he would be. And
was I. But he said the thing that really kept me going, he said, `Don't
about it,' you know. `Make sure your knee gets back into fit condition
because your health is the most important thing. And then we will wait for
Because I would have been so devastated if he had, you know, to replace me
get someone else to do this part that I had been wanting to do for so long.
So after surgery Dr. Cosgarea had said to me if I was willing to go into a
very intense rehab program, you know, professional footballers go back into
professional game by the end of three months. So it was possible that I
do that, you know, barring there were no complications and I was willing to
up with the pain and aggravation and all that. So that was what I did,
gritted my teeth and knew that I wanted to be back in China filming with my
crew. So I spent three weeks out here doing rehab and then going back to
GROSS: How's the knee now?
Ms. YEOH: It's not 100--I guess it will never be at 100 percent because,
know, I think also consciously, mentally, you always think `Oh, there is an
injury.' So you're always more aware of it. It's coming along. I still
to do therapy for it. I think what happened was because--you know, I went
straight back into that filming and also that last final action sequence
the inflammation never really had a chance to go away completely and we just
kept aggravating it. But it's getting better.
GROSS: "Crouching Tiger" really shows off your acting abilities as well as
your fighting abilities. Do you have any inclination to get out of martial
arts films, into more straight dramatic films?
Ms. YEOH: No. I--you know, as an actress, I want the balance of being able
to do both. I do love action films. And, you know, this is where I've
always worked so hard to do to get to is where--there should be a balance in
action film whereas whereby the dramatic element is just as important as the
action. And Ang has proven to us very clearly in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon," that it can be done, that the action doesn't need to overwhelm the
dramatic, you know, the beauty about the emotional side, the story segment
be told. Personally, for myself, I've just started my own production
with partners Media Asia in Hong Kong and I--in fact, my first production
be an action-adventure, so the question that you asked me, will I move away
from action films, no. I really do enjoy making them. But then I will have
the balance of doing non-action films because I do understand that the body
needs to rest sometimes.
GROSS: Right. Well, Michelle Yeoh, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. YEOH: Oh, thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Michelle Yeoh stars in the new film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden
It opens in New York this Friday, in Los Angeles next week, and nationally
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a track from Paul Simon's new CD,
"You're The One." We just recorded an interview which we'll feature some
in the next few days. This song is called "Old."
(Soundbite of "Old")
Mr. PAUL SIMON: (Singing) The first time I heard "Peggy Sue" I was 12 years
old. Russians up in their rocket ships and the war was Cold. Now many wars
have come and gone, genocide still goes on, Buddy Holly still goes on, but
catalog was sold. First time I smoked--Guess what?--paranoia. First time I
heard "Satisfaction," I was young and unemployed. Down the decades every
year, summer leaves and my birthday's here, and all my friends stand up and
cheer, saying, `Man, you're old, getting old, you're old, you're getting
We celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. And Buddha found their
mantra along the lotus way. About 1,500 years ago, the messenger Mohammad
spoke and his wisdom like a river flowed through hills of gold. Wisdom is
old, the Koran is old, the Bible is old, the greatest story ever told.
Disagreements, work them out.
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